The Effect of Behind-The-Scenes Encounters and Interactive Presentations on the Welfare of Captive Servals (Leptailurus serval)
Animal Welfare Science Centre, Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences, University of Melbourne, Parkville, Victoria 3052, Australia
Department of Wildlife Conservation and Science, Zoos Victoria, Parkville, Victoria 3052, Australia
Hartpury University, Gloucester GL193BE, UK
Centre for Integrative Ecology, Deakin University, Geelong, Victoria 3216, Australia
Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Received: 13 April 2020
Accepted: 15 April 2020
Published: 24 April 2020
Live animal encounter programs are an increasingly popular occurrence in the modern zoo. The effects of such encounters on program animal welfare have not been studied extensively to date. The aim of this study was, therefore, to explore animal welfare effects associated with encounter programs in a small felid, the serval, which is commonly involved as a program animal in zoos. Specifically, this study investigated how serval behaviour and adrenocortical activity (level of faecal cortisol metabolites) were affected by short-term variations in encounter frequency. Over the course of the study, the frequency of encounters was manipulated so that servals alternated between four different treatments, involving interactive presentations, behind-the-scenes encounters, both activities combined, or no interaction at all. The cats exhibited a significant reduction in stereotypic pacing on weeks when participating in interactive presentations, or the two activities combined. However, behavioural diversity (total number of behaviours exhibited) was strongly reduced on weeks when cats participated in both activities. Adrenocortical activity did not vary significantly between treatments. The reduction in stereotypic pacing suggests that involvement in an encounter program may exert a positive short-term welfare effect on the individual servals. A reduction in behavioural diversity, which was not considered a negative welfare effect in the short term, may, however, warrant some need for caution if a more frequent encounter program was to be implemented long-term. These findings contribute to the current knowledge of visitor–animal interaction in zoo-housed felids, which is very limited to date, and could also provide valuable guidance to zoo professionals that are currently engaging in an encounter program with servals or planning on implementing such a program in the future.